Full Marx for Mullahs: A Reflection on Social Control in Islam

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Part II

IN Part I of this essay, published last month, the assets of Islam as a disciplining or controlling faith were explored. It cannot be too much stressed that Islam's strength, from a contemporary Western perspective, is partly relative to our own modern experience, which has seen a decline of control by Christianity. But paradoxically, Islamic doctrine depicts Christianity, with or without Jewish partnership, as an ever-present threat to Islam. This threat is directly countered by Islamist militancy. But regimes (and others) who value a Western connection and need to demonstrate their distance from 'fundamentalism', may direct a form of Islamic propaganda at (rather than against) the West. This was the theme on which Part I concluded. I suggested that the shaping or control of Western attitudes towards Islam amounts to a distinct, and fifth, form of 'control' in and by Islam.

Conceivably this analysis is influenced by the thoughts of a lamented colleague, Dennis Duncanson (1917-98), on communist 'psy-war' in Southeast Asia. By this he meant the mental penetration and subversion of the liberal democracies through appeals to latent international values and assumptions of segments of their citizenry: 'don't be beastly to the natives' and 'they are democratic nationalists like us'. Or, most recently from the mouth of Britain's 'First Lady' (not Her Majesty the Queen), and with reference to Islam, 'the suicide bombers deserve our compassion because they have lost hope'. (Would it not be more to the point to say that they have lost control: to the orchestrators of terror, most notoriously the agents of HAMAS under their own mentor, 'spiritual leader' Sheikh Ahmad Yassin?) Mrs. Blair's passion for compassion should not be wasted on suicide bombers.

Islamic penetration is distinct in kind from the Marxist-Leninist form only in so far as Islam is not monolithic and many of those Muslims who seek to persuade us are themselves genuine moderates, more self-deceived than deceiving about the aggressive potential of their religion today and the military thrust of the Muslim empire of yore. These publicists are reasonably comparable with the 'fellow-travellers' and Vietcong-sympathizers of the democratic Left during the Cold War. The line that revolutions have spontaneous economic causes or seek national liberation is a diversion reminiscent of the Cold War: for the motivating doctrine of Islam today substitute the mobilizing ideology of Marxism-Leninism of yesteryear! In either context, of course, the actions of world-revolutionary elites count as a response to the evils of the capitalist and liberal West, not as a calculating cause of conflict.

A Benign Discourse?

The notion of Islam as a moderate religion and largely benign international force finds one highly persuasive non-Muslim advocate in Fred Halliday of the L.S.E. My latest exposure to his perspectives took place at the admirable lecture at London University on 15th April, where he shared the platform with the American Steven Simon of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Halliday's most salient argument portrayed Islam as a religious code for diverse, at root political or 'real-world', concerns such as 'the environment' and 'globalization'. Religion cannot explain political behaviour. At most, understanding the religious tradition can provide enhanced insight into the politics... but only to the extent (it seemed to turn out) that the international practice of Islam defies its own precepts of umma (one family, undivided by nation-states), jihad (war against Unbelievers) and Dar-ul-Islam (a world community or 'House', at peace with itself, at war with all the rest). The exceptions prove the rule!

The objection which springs urgently to mind is that religion does seem to be the primary driving force of Osama bin Laden and his band. (Steven Simon at the same event spoke of their 'cosmic war against the enemies of God', and the impossibility of compromise where radicals become convinced that their mentors' commands are 'the Word of God'. …